‘Bad laws, zealous state officials failing local media’

International freedom of expression groups have called on state authorities in Uganda to ensure that the media are able to operate freely, especially ahead of the 2011 general elections.

Members of the joint partnership mission to Uganda on freedom of expression made the call on September 23 at the conclusion of a four-day mission to assess the media environment in the country.

Releasing their findings to reporters in Kampala, the team noted that while Uganda’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, various laws and government authorities were infringing free speech.

“Uganda in the recent past (2 years) has continued to propose and pass laws that fundamentally threaten free expression, media freedom and access to information,” the group said in a statement. “The Press and Journalist Amendment Bill, the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, and the Public Order Management Bill all further threaten freedom of expression and other fundamental liberties, contributing to an environment of self-censorship.”

The team, which met with various journalists, government officials, and civil society representatives, was made up of Mr. Henry Maina of Article 19; Mr. Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Ms. Courtney Radsch and Ms. Karin Karlekar of Freedom House; Ms. Ugonna Duru of the Media Foundation for West Africa; and Mr. Kaitira Kandjii of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. The African Centre for Media Excellence hosted the delegation.

Among the recommendations, the group urged the government to overturn provisions of the penal code such as criminal defamation and promotion of sectarianism.

The group also urged Ugandan journalists to keep pressure on authorities that were stifling them, especially Resident District Commissioners. “RDCs regularly overstep their mandate and intimidate journalists,” the statement said. “There is not a clear framework that defines their work or how to hold them accountable. This impunity has contributed to rising self-censorship, especially outside the capital, and fewer media outlets that are willing to engage in critical reporting.”

On the journalists and media organisations’ part, it was noted that there is lack of professional development programmes for journalists, which is hurting the industry. Issues of bribery exacerbated by poor pay in the media industry and shortage of skilled and experienced journalists were also highlighted.

Mr. Henry Maina of Article 19 said that it was up to journalists to keep the profession clean. “You need to keep your integrity before you point fingers at others,” he said at the press conference. “It is up to us to define what we stand for professionally.”

The team further encouraged journalists and media outlets to make a more concerted effort to submit complaints and reports to the Uganda Human Rights Commission and other redress mechanisms.

Other recommendations by the mission include speedy investigations into the recent killing of journalists, re-opening of CBS radio, and strengthening of self-regulatory mechanisms by journalists and media organisations.
Ms. Radsch said that the report findings and recommendations would be discussed with various international free speech advocates with a broad aim of ensuring freedom of the press worldwide.

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